During her recent visit to China, a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren (perceived by many as a potential Presidential Candidate of the Democratic Party in 2020), came down heavily on US President Donald Trump’s approach towards foreign policy, arguing that it lacks substance, is unpredictable, and does not pay much attention to liberal values and human rights, which according to her has been the cornerstone of US foreign policy for a long time.
Commenting on Trump’s unpredictable approach towards Asia, Warren stated:
This has been a chaotic foreign policy in the region, and that makes it hard to keep the allies that we need to accomplish our objectives closely stitched-in.
Critical of US approach towards China
Warren met with senior Chinese officials including Liu He, vice-premier for economic policy, Yang Jiechi, a top diplomat, and the minister of defense, Wei Fenghe, and discussed a number of important issues including trade and the North Korea issue.
Warren criticised China for being relatively closed, and stated that the US needed to have a more realistic approach towards Beijing. She also spoke of the need for the US to remain committed to raising Human Rights issues, and not skirt the issue, while dealing with China.
The removal of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State (who was replaced by Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA) reiterates three key problems in US President Donald Trump’s style of functioning: First, his inability to get along with members of his team; second, impulsive decisions driven excessively by ‘optics’ and personal chemistry between leaders; and, finally, his inability to work in a system even where it is necessary.
Tillerson, who had differences with Trump on issues ranging from the Iran Nuclear Deal (which Trump has been wanting to scrap, though his stance was moderated by Tillerson) to the handling of North Korea, is not the first member (earlier senior individuals to be sacked are, amongst others, Michael Flynn, who was National Security Adviser, and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon) to exit hurriedly. Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council, quit recently after opposing the US President’s tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium.
The US President tweeted this decision:
Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!
The US President admitted that Tillerson’s style of functioning was very different from his own (alluding to the latter’s more nuanced approach on complex issues).
Interestingly, the US President did not even consult any of his staff members, including Tillerson, before agreeing to engage with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un. The South Korean National Security Advisor, Chung Eui Yong, had met with Trump and put forward the North Korean dictator’s proposal of a Summit.
The US President agreed to this proposal. Commenting on his decision to engage with Kim Jong Un, Trump tweeted:
Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!
While Chung stated that the Summit would take place before May 2018, White House has not provided any specific dates.
There is absolutely no doubt that, at times, bold steps need to be taken to resolve complex issues like North Korea. Trump’s impulsive nature, however – refusing to go into the depth of things or seeking expert opinion – does not make for good diplomacy.
In fact, a number of politicians and journalist have expressed their skepticism with regard to where North Korean negotiations may ultimately lead. Ed Markey a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, stated that Trump “must abandon his penchant for unscripted remarks and bombastic rhetoric to avoid derailing this significant opportunity for progress.”
In a column for the Washington Post, Jeffrey Lewis makes the point that there is a danger of Trump getting carried away by the attention he receives. Says Lewis in his column:
Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.
All Trump’s interlocutors have realized that while he is unpredictable, one thing which is consistent is the fact that he is prone to flattery. During his China visit, for instance, Trump was so taken aback by the welcome he received and the MOU’s signed with Chinese companies that he started criticizing his predecessors.
Finally, while Trump, like many global leaders, has risen as a consequence of being an outsider to the establishment, with people being disillusioned with the embedded establishment, the US President has still not realized that one of Washington’s biggest assets has been strategic alliances like NATO and multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA. The United States has also gained from globalization and strategic partnerships; it has not been one way traffic.
It remains to be seen how Tillerson’s removal will affect relations with key US allies. If Trump actually goes ahead with scrapping the Iran nuclear deal (2015), it will send a negative message not just to other members of the P5 grouping, but also India. In the last three years, India has sought to strengthen economic ties with Iran and has invested in the Chabahar Port Project. New Delhi is looking at Iran as a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. If Tillerson’s successor just plays ball, and does not temper the US President’s style of conducting foreign policy, there is likely to be no stability and consistency and even allies would be skeptical.
Japan on its part would want its concerns regarding the abduction of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang’s agents, decades ago, to not get sidelined in negotiations with North Korea. (13 Japanese individuals were abducted in 2002, 5 have returned but the fate of the others remains unknown.) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made the return of the abductees a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and his low approval ratings due to a domestic scandal could use the boost that is usually associated with the plight of those abductees.
The removal of Tillerson underscores problems with Trump’s style of functioning as discussed earlier. The outside world has gotten used to the US President’s style of functioning and will closely be watching what Tillerson’s successor brings to the table.
The tension on the Korean Peninsula can be felt throughout the entire Pacific Rim right now. North Korea, a dictatorship with a shaky grasp on its populace, has nuclear weapons and is launching non-nuclear missiles over Japan and threatening South Korea and the United States. To make matters worse, the only state in the region that Pyongyang deems worthy of dialogue, China, refuses to engage in much multilateral work to defuse the situation.
If I were South Korea and China I would have an advanced missile shield system right on the border of North Korea, and if I were Japan I would have an advanced missile shield system spread all along my massive coastline. However, China is engaging in trade sanctions against South Korea for trying to build a missile shield along it’s border with North Korea, ostensibly because such a missile shield would threaten Beijing’s territorial integrity. This is a huge strategic mistake on China’s part. North Korea is ruled by the son of a brutal dictator who is in the midst of remaking the People’s Republic in his image. Pyongyang is launching missiles over wealthy democracies and threatening perceived enemies with nuclear annihilation. China is ignoring all of this, and undertaking policies designed to underwhelm multilateral efforts at containing North Korea because Beijing wants North Korea to serve 3 purposes: 1) a useful buffer state (but read this), 2) a hostile reminder that it considers Taiwan as part of China, and 3) as a good bargaining chip when dealing with the United States in the region.
Given that the United States is not geographically a part of East Asia, and given that Washington figures prominently in not one, not two, but all three major reasons why China refuses to engage robustly in more multilateral actions against such a destructive neighbor, we must ask ourselves: Why is the United States still in South Korea? The answer is that Koreans want them there.
Check out the latest results of a Pew Survey asking people what they think about the United States:
75% of South Koreans have a favorable or somewhat favorable view of the US even after the election of Donald Trump. That’s higher than the other baseball-friendly countries like Italy (61%) and Japan (57%), and much higher than next-door neighbor Mexico (30%) and longtime NATO partner Germany (35%).
China is wrong to believe that an American withdrawal would suddenly make North Korea a breezy member of the international community of states. Kim Jong Un’s regime depends on foreign enemies to survive. James Madison put it best:
The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending have enslaved the people.
North Korea would bully Seoul and Tokyo and cajole Beijing even moreso because Washington would not be there to bear the burden of Liberal Hegemonic Boogieman.
But I’m not a Chinese citizen and this is a post about a more liberal world, so I’d like to switch gears and focus on something that all libertarians are secretly obsessed with: money.
What kind of deal is the US getting by having troops stationed along the 38th parallel? I know the US is a target of a dictator’s nuclear arsenal because of troops along the 38th, and I know the US has to expend considerable resources on the Korean Peninsula to protect Seoul, so costs are understood, but what about benefits? What about payment? What does US get in return for protecting South Korea?
Trade – a big aspect of libertarian foreign policy – is not that big of a deal for either country: the United States makes up about 14% of South Korea’s exports, and South Korea makes up nearly 3% of the United States’ exports. This means that China, for example, is a larger, more important trading partner to both countries than either is to each other.
One of the benefits I’ve found is South Korea’s participation in multilateral military actions undertaken under the umbrella of US military leadership. South Korea has provided troops for dozens of current UN missions in sub-Saharan Africa and post-British Asia, and also participated in the US-led invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq (Seoul’s troops left Iraq in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2014). I also learned that South Korea deployed 325,000 soldiers to South Vietnam from 1964-1973, losing roughly 5,100 soldiers and welcoming home another 11,000 wounded soldiers.
Seoul’s participation in Vietnam was a shocking discovery for me. It forced me to reassess America’s relationship with South Korea. The status quo is actually a decent trade-off. The status quo is cooperative, not coercive. The status quo isn’t so bad from a libertarian standpoint: There is a trade-off with mutually beneficial exchange involved, there is a cooperative rather than coercive relationship between both sides, and tens of millions of people are freer than they otherwise would be because of it.
We can still make the alliance marginally better, though. We can still take small steps to a much better world. Consider federation between the two countries.
On the face of it, such an event is ludicrously radical and completely anathema to liberty and cooperation. I would have had the same reaction just a couple of years ago, but two books have fundamentally changed my mind about this: Daniel Deudney’s Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village and David Hendrickson’s Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding. Both scholars are American political scientists and, as far as I can tell, card-carrying Democrats.
Deudney’s book uses theory and history to show that, among other things, republican security theory is, and always has been, from antiquity to the present day, the most important question that scholars of international relations have had to grapple with. For centuries, republics started out with the best of intentions, the best of circumstances, and always managed to decay into despotism or succumb to conquest by neighboring despots. The United States, Deudney goes on, managed to get out of this trap through federal union and, because of its peculiar geographic situation, a full-fledged republican security bargain was able to come to full fruition.
Deudney bases this part of his argument on Hendrickson’s little-known but immensely persuasive book. Hendrickson argues that the newly independent 13 states and their eventual federal union should best be viewed in an international relations framework. In order to protect themselves not only from powerful empires but more importantly from each other, the 13 states entered into a federal union that held them responsible for a limited number of shared responsibilities (such as international security and ensuring republican government in their domestic realms) and left plenty of space for each of them to exercise policymaking as they saw fit. In order to avoid a race to the bottom – where the 13 states formed security blocs between themselves and used Spain, France, and the UK to undermine their rivals – the 13 states built, piece-by-piece, a cooperative international system and called it a federation.
With America’s domestic liberties under increasing assault, largely because the current situation places so much emphasis on certain checks and balances over others, adding additional “states” in the form of South Korea’s provinces would breathe new life into all of the institutions necessary for both security and republican domestic governance.
The inevitable Korean bloc
The biggest fear that such a federation would bring about is the fear of a Korean bloc, or the disintegration of the precarious balance of power between the two parties in the US. Although partisans on both sides no doubt loathe that their side is even with the other in terms of influence and numbers, most Americans are very happy with the two party status quo (if they weren’t happy there would no longer be a two party status quo).
Admitting 5 to 7 new “states,” former Korean provinces, makes it seem like this delicate two party balance would be quickly destroyed with the advent of a Korean bloc which has no interest in traditional American politics. I assure you there would be no Korean bloc. Look at the most recent Korean elections:
There is a Left-Right divide focused on policy and to a lesser extent ideology rather than an ethnic one, just like here in the States.
The Korean Left would line up nicely with Democrats (it even has an anti-American streak that isn’t anti-American at all, only anti-GOP, just like the Democrats!). The conservative wing of South Korea might form a Korean bloc but it would be ineffective in the House and Senate because of its small number.
Libertarians are often dissatisfied with the status quo, even though they’re often the first to point out that life in Western states continues to get better and better. The status quo relationship between South Korea and the United States is great. But it could always be a little bit better.
The United States should offer a peace treaty with North Korea and offer diplomatic relations. The Korean War did not officially end. Let’s end it now.
The chiefs of North Korea have feared an invasion by the USA. They recognize that several heads of countries without nuclear weapons, such as in Lybia and Iraq, were overthrown. It is recognized that nuclear weapons that can be sent to the USA provide a deterrent against an overthrow of the state and even against an assassination of the Korean head of state.
The government of North Korea has evidently convinced the people there that the USA is their enemy and a threat. That propaganda would be less effective if there were a peace treaty.
So the US government should, together with South Korea, China, Russia, and the United Nations, offer to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea.
The USA has negotiated with North Korea on a stoppage of its nuclear weapons project, but North Korea will not give up its weapons, and negotiations along with economic pressure will not be effective, since their greatest accomplishment has been their nuclear achievements, and the Chinese leaders seek to avoid an economic collapse.
Therefore a peace treaty with North Korea should not seek to end the nuclear status of the regime, but eliminate the deeper problem of mutual fears. The peace treaty would state that the U.S. recognizes North Korea as a sovereign country, and that there will be no invasion.
If the government of North Korea refuses to negotiate a peace treaty, then it will be seen that the hostility is being generated by North Korea, not the USA. The USA should then declare peace unilaterally. With the governments of South Korea and China, the USA would write a peace treaty and they would declare unilateral peace. The US would offer diplomatic relations, and if refused, would appoint an ambassador anyway, who would reside in China.
The US government would then broadcast to the people of North Korea, and send them messages via leaflets and computer files, that the USA has declared peace.
The opponents of a peace treaty could argue that this would leave North Korea with weapons that could reach US territory. But if the North Koreans will refuse to give up their nuclear capability, the peace treaty does not increase the danger. Indeed, the treaty, when agreed to by North Korea, would increase safety by prohibiting North Korea from providing nuclear materials and technology to others.
If North Korea accepts the peace treaty, the US would withdraw its troops from South Korea. Their presence is antiquated, since the threat would be from missiles rather than from an invasion by North Korean troops.
North Korea would gain four advantages from a peace treaty. First, assurance that the US is no longer a potential threat. Second, global diplomatic recognition. Third, removal of US troops from Korea. Fourth, the ability to trade freely with the rest of the world.
If the North Korean regime is not suicidal and seeks to maximize its well being, it would accept a peace treaty. But even if it does not accept a treaty, a unilateral offering would deflate its fears and propaganda.
This article also appears in http://www.progress.org
Today’s Wall Street Journal carried a piece headlined “Gold from North Korea Stymies U.S. Firms.” It seems that U.S. firms that use various minerals, not just gold but also tungsten, tantalum and tin, are required by U.S. law to ask their suppliers whether any of these materials are so-called “conflict minerals.” Up to now this provision has mainly covered minerals sourced from areas of the Congo which are embroiled in warfare. Now it seems firms must also find out whether any of the gold they use in their products came from North Korea.
It’s not so simple as asking each supplier, because those suppliers may in turn have obtained their supplies from a variety of sources, all of which may have gotten mixed in together in their inventory. And of course it’s an open question as to whether suppliers can document their sources; presumably their say-so won’t suffice. They might also raise their asking prices to cover the costs of time-consuming compliance exercises.
The article says the North Korean central bank refined gold into bars that were certified by the London Bullion Market Association up until 2006. It is believed that they have continued to produce gold bars.
Gold is highly marketable. It’s uniform, nearly indestructible, and traded internationally. It’s unlikely the North Koreans would be stamp any of the bars they refine “made in the DPRK.” The North Koreans are known to be experts at counterfeiting U.S. currency, so how easy would it be for them to stamp a fake refinery mark on their gold bars?
What’s the point of this requirement? As with all political actions, this one has both an ostensible and a real (“public choice”) goal. The ostensible reason is to harm the evil North Korean regime by reducing the revenue they get from gold sales. The likely real reason is to make politicians and bureaucrats look good. None of this is to downplay the horror that is the North Korean regime. I only want to consider who will benefit and who will be hurt by this program.
All right, so who bears the costs? The requirement is an obvious expense for the firms involved. They will pass on as much of the compliance costs to customers as they can, but they will find little ability to do so if they face foreign competitors who suffer from no such regulatory burden. I won’t attempt to estimate elasticities here, just guess that costs will be borne primarily by shareholders and employees of gold-using firms and not so much by customers. These firms will become a little bit less competitive. To some extent suppliers will be burdened as well, but they probably have options like shifting to other customers or getting another intermediary in between them and their U.S. customers.
Lastly, how likely is this measure to succeed? The answer depends on which goal we’re thinking of. If it’s the political goal, politicians and bureaucrats will probably accrue a little bit of credit. If it’s the ostensible goal, hurting the North Korean regime, the answer is: no chance whatsoever. The only harm the North Koreans might endure would be busting a gut from laughing. In the unlikely event they find some of their customers have withdrawn, they can easily and with almost total anonymity dispose of their gold through international markets.
The effects of this requirement will be minor for a huge firm like Hewlett Packard. But U.S. industries are dying from a thousand cuts like this, and as they gradually lose out to foreign competitors, we wonder why.
You will notice I have not invoked any libertarian ideology in this humble piece. It’s just a matter of tracing consequences a little further and looking for public choice explanations of behavior. Hooray for the San Jose State University graduate program that helped me learn these skills.
- The media’s shooting bias. An excellent take on the hypocrisy of the media. (read David Henderson’s take, too)
- Conservation Native American style (grab a cup of coffee)
- The mission to decentralize the internet; interesting argument, though I don’t think the internet is as centralized as the author makes it out to be.
- Doug Bandow on North Korea’s ongoing purges
- Blast from the past: What did Marxism look like in Mozambique in the 1980s?
A recent op-ed in Foreign Policy highlights South Korea’s very successful rent-seeking campaign in regard to US military services:
When it comes to taking charge of coalition forces here on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea has been a little gun shy. South Korea and the United States this week are celebrating the 60-year anniversary of an alliance forged after the Korean War; there were two parades, a big dinner, video retrospectives, and a lot of talk of katchi kapshida (“we stand together”). But after decades of confidence-building joint exercises and billions of dollars in military assistance, it’s time for the South Koreans to step up and assume what’s called “operational control” of all forces stationed here if war should break out. The problem is, the South Koreans aren’t quite ready.
This brings out two interrelated but distinct trains of thought in my mind. First, it destroys the arguments, found on the hard Left, about a brutal US imperialism in the region. Seoul has made a US military presence on its soil a top priority for sixty years now. This has been the case during the autocratic period and it is now the case for the democratic one as well. A state cannot have a brutal presence in another state’s territory if the latter state continues to make the former’s presence a top priority.
Second, this is not to say that the US is not imperialistic. Here is how Merriam-Webster online defines imperialism: “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas.” With this useful definition in mind, South Korea’s rent-seeking necessarily brings up anti-imperial arguments from the center and the Right; namely, that South Korea is taking US taxpayers for a ride (the Cato Institute has done some especially good work on this topic).
So here are the relevant circumstances: the US military is currently on the Korean peninsula, and it is fairly entrenched, and the South Koreans overwhelmingly want it there, and US citizens don’t seem to mind all that much the presence of their military along the 38th parallel. So what exactly is the problem? Why is Foreign Policy, a traditionally interventionist publication, highlighting South Korea’s rent-seeking now? The answer, I think you all know, is government gridlock. Notice first how gridlock is not necessarily a bad thing. It forces Americans to reassess their priorities and to make tough compromises.
Libertarians have long called for Washington to withdraw its troops from South Korea (and correctly so). Among their grievances are the aforementioned rent-seeking tactics of the South Koreans, the unnecessary expenses that accompany such arrangements, and the fact that a US military presence causes unnecessary problems with China and North Korea.
Given the costs and the unnecessary dangers associated with occupation, I am in full agreement with libertarians. However, given the four circumstances mentioned above, I think there is a better way to go about pursuing a more just situation: federate with each other. By federate I do not mean that Seoul should send two senators and X number of representatives. That would be extraordinarily unfair. However, if the 17 provinces in South Korea each sent two senators and X number of representatives, justice would be achieved.
The objections to such an idea are numerous. They include political, cultural and economic angles, and none of them ever hold up to scrutiny. But what exactly is wrong with the status quo? What’s wrong with a complete military withdrawal? My answer to the first question is simply that the status quo is unfair. The South Koreans are ripping the Americans off. My answer to the second question is a bit more complicated.
A complete withdrawal implies that South Korea is not paying its fair share. Indeed, that it is not paying its share at all. A complete withdrawal also implies that foreign occupation creates unnecessary dangers, and it is indeed difficult to imagine a nuclear-armed North Korea without the presence of the US military along the 38th parallel (would Beijing or Tokyo stand for that? Would there be two Koreas? Korea today, without the war, would look like Vietnam).
A withdrawal also implies that the US no longer cares about the South Korean people. Only the hard, fringe Korean Left wants the US out. It’s not the threat of China or North Korea I’m concerned about (only demagogues are concerned about that), but rather the lost opportunity to enhance liberty and equality under the law in both the US and South Korea.
A federation would go a long way toward tackling these problems. South Korean provinces would suddenly find themselves paying their fair share. Two armies would become one (that means soldiers from the province of Jeollanam would be fighting in Afghanistan and not just patrolling the 38th parallel). The propaganda about American imperialism coming from the socialist paradise of North Korea would be rendered obsolete. A new peace – based on consent and equality – would begin to arise. My inspiration for these thoughts comes from a segment of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (pgs 681-682; bottom of 779-794 in the Bantam paperback edition), musings from Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (223-236 in the definitive, paperback edition) and Mises’s fascinating argument in Liberalism (105-154 of the paperback edition from FEE; here is a pdf of the book from mises.org). I’d even go so far as to claim that it is a more libertarian position than the calls to withdraw from the region. At any rate, it would certainly address the problem of rent-seeking that the US now finds itself facing (which in turn proves that the libertarians were correct all along).
- The Reality of Feel-Good Government. James Bovard on “federal service” programs
- Will Wilkinson says “I smoke pot and I like it” (there’s more to the piece than just a confession)
- Map of police officers per 100,000 people in Europe
- Filming North Korea’s Film Industry
- Stephen Walt weighs in on the Snowden affair: What, me worry?
- Sex in the Arab World. An interview with Shereen El Feki
Foreign policy has been awfully quiet these days. President Obama has been murdering people left and right on a whim, and nobody in Washington seems to care. You can imagine what the reaction would be in Washington if a Republican had been the one flaunting the rule of law. The Economist has a good article on this development if anyone is interested.
One newsworthy item that concerns American foreign policy has been centered on the Korean peninsula, a place that the United States first became involved militarily during the 1950’s. Given that our government is currently mired in two foreign occupations at the peripheries of the Islamic world (Afghanistan and the Balkans) as well as being embroiled in conflicts along the Sahel (thanks to President Obama’s attacks on the Libyan state), one should naturally be curious as to why the current affairs of the Korean peninsula are of interest to the United States government.
To make a long story short, the US government currently has some 50,000 troops stationed along the border of the North-South divide (drawn up in the 1950’s after a devastating war was fought between communist and conservative factions within Korea, China, and the United States), and has an alliance with the South that guarantees military help in case of a war with the communist North. The later state is actively attempting to build a nuclear weapon.
As a rule, I think it is appropriate that when citizens of a republic hear about other nations and events, the subject matter ought to revolve around how beautiful the geography of a said nation is, or how beautiful the women are, or how bad the food is, or which team won the national championship, and in which sport. That American citizens are hearing about a possible escalation of military tension in the region is, by itself, not a bad thing nor a surprising thing, but when our military and our tax dollars are suddenly involved in the escalation itself, then American citizens have ample cause to be worried, angry, and tense. These are not qualities that are often sought out by individuals on a daily basis, and when a government that claims to be republican in nature begins to cause these said psychological factors within it’s borders, then citizens ought to question the supposed republicanism of their government. Continue reading